Italian Nuns Are Making Orange Wine for God and the Rest of Us

Just north of Rome, a convent of nuns is taking on the world of natural booze. The sisters of Monastero Suore Cisterci produce two types of wine—blending their old-world techniques with contemporary tastes—that have earned them an international...

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Nov 19 2014, 11:04pm

About 30 miles north of Rome is the Monastero Suore Cisterci (Monastic Order of Cistercian Nuns), near the town of Vitorchiano. Founded in 1098 as a Cistercian order of the Catholic Church, a group of about 80 nuns are taking on the world of natural wine. The Catholic Church has historically tried to establish quality viticulture throughout Europe, with the Benedictines and the Cistercians primarily planting vines throughout many parts of the continent. These autonomous, self-sustaining communities produce beer, wine, spirits, cheeses, and sweets to make their living—all while trying to live under the rule of St. Benedict and striving to continually improve viticulture, recipes, and the land here, too.

Wine is a big part of how the sisters support their facility, and also a part of their spiritual practice. The vineyard was hand-planted with Trebbiano, Verdicchio, Malvasia, and Grechetto—all local white grape varieties. The sisters tend the vineyard without machinery and are invested in low-intervention practices. They ferment with only naturally occurring yeasts and follow organic wine-making practices.

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Wine production is a way for the sisters to provide a direct injection of income into their organization, and by doing so they have tapped into one of the most lucrative up-and-coming wine trends. Natural wines and orange wines are both hot commodities in the wine trade at the moment, and their bottles fall into both categories.

Orange wines have been made from white grapes, but with a longer maceration and skin contact, which in turn extracts more color and flavor out of the grape. It also allows the wine to come into contact with more oxygen, and can give the wine a slight oxidative note. Many of them drink as if they are red wines, with increased tannins; robust, changing flavors; and a depth reminiscent of rustic Sangiovese or dark Nebbiolo.

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With the help of one of Italy's most prominent low-intervention wine producers—Giampiero Bea and his father, Paolo—they are able to create something that the international marketplace desires, with up to up to 80 percent of their production exported overseas. The Beas are known for making wine without any commercial yeasts; their wines aren't fined or filtered before bottling, and only the smallest amount of sulfur is added prior to bottling. Each year, the Beas come from their home base in Umbria to the monastery to help the sisters harvest and produce their two wines.

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History and tradition are on the sisters' side, and their story is special. But what stands out about the sisters is not only their religious dedication, but also their ability to create a product that is viable in a modern world.